I’m taking a break from writing on France travel to bring you up to date on my weekend visit to Chicago. This past weekend I had the good fortune to attend the first (and hopefully annual) Travel Blog Exchange conference, which was the brain child of Kim Mance of GalavantingTV and Debbie Dubrow of Delicious Baby. TBEX was designed to tag on to the end of the larger BlogHer conference, but TBEX was just for travel writers and travel bloggers.
Travel writers from all over the country, and as far away as Chile and Laos traveled to Chicago to meet, share and learn from panels of experts, and from each other. The mood in the room was effervescent, and the networking opportunities were the most valuable experience of all for a newbie blogger like me. It’s hard to describe my excitement being surrounded by 100 other enthusiastic and experienced travelers who love to chat and write about their experiences….such a creative flow of consciousness.
Kudos again to Kim and Debbie for a fabulous day, and to the corporate sponsors who made it possible: GoGo Inflight Internet, Savvy Navigator, Vail Resorts, Explore Chicago, TravelPod, HomeAway, and BootsnAll Travel.
I decided to mix business with pleasure and bring my kids with me to explore Chicago’s rich offerings. Which brings up the oft-asked question, “Should you bring the kids along with you on a business trip?” The answer is: it depends. In my case, my children are old enough (10 & 15) that they could be left alone while I attended the 6 hour conference, and they are well-traveled and well behaved, so for us, it worked out beautifully. Of course they had boundaries (okay to wander in the lobby, stop in at Starbucks, but not leave the property).
I had not been to downtown Chicago myself in 12 years, and there is so much to see and do for children and adults, we barely scratched the surface, but here’s a run down of what we did/saw/ate! If you’re in a hurry, just watch this short video recap:
Millennium Park — A wonderful urban space in the downtown Loop, which forms the northwest corner of Grant Park. The park opened to the public in July 2004, and three of the most striking features are the Cloud Gate Sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor (looks like a giant silver kidney bean), the giant “Face” fountains by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, and the Pritzker Outdoor Music Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry. It seems there’s always something going on in the summer in this grand space. We timed our visit on a Saturday afternoon with a free concert and opera playing to a packed house. The famous Art Institute of Chicago is just south of the Music Pavilion, but was closed by the time we made our way over. Have to save that for the next trip.
Fireworks Cruise – We were lucky to be in town during the annual Venetian festival, which features a lighted boat parade and fireworks over Lake Michigan. I read in Frommer’s Guide to Chicago the best place to view the fireworks over the lake was from the lake itself, and boy, were they right! Chicagoline Cruises had a fantastic 90 minute Fireworks Cruise which navigated from the river, through the locks, and into Lake Michigan to watch the spectacular display over the lake. Price was just $36 for adults, and $21 for youth aged 7-18, and included Starbucks coffee, lemonade, cookies, chips and snacks. An open bar option was also available. Chicagoline also runs 90 minute architectural cruises along the Chicago River, which is a great tour in itself. On the Fireworks Cruise we also got an abbreviated architectural tour, which was a great treat. The reflections of the buildings illuminated at night on the river were gorgeous.
Navy Pier – This great public space juts out into Lake Michigan and is one of the highlights of Chicago sightseeing. Home to the Chicago Children’s Museum and the Pepsi Skyline Stage, the focal point is the giant Ferris wheel, along with other rides, shops, restaurants and amusements. Ben & Jerry’s was a big hit, as was the swing ride.
Obama Family Home – Okay, you can’t really get close, as the entire block is barricaded and guarded 24/7, but hundreds of tourists drive by the end of the street to crane their necks for a look. Apparently we stayed a little too long. While I was programming in our next destination on GPS, one of Chicago’s finest tapped on our window and asked us to move along, we were making the Secret Service a little nervous with our loitering.
Wow! Magnificent Mile is shopping nirvana to those needing a little retail therapy…even my 10 year old son was happy with a stop in at the Lego Store. IF you can’t find something to tempt you along these famous blocks of Michigan Avenue, just stay home! Special shout out to Teuscher Chocolates in the 900 Shops– I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say their champagne truffles are the best chocolate on the planet!!!
We wanted to try Chicago classics as well as some of the rich ethnic fare, and were not disappointed.
Pizzeria Uno, 29 E. Ohio St. – Original Chicago deep dish pizza, with delicious, rich crust
Ed Debevic’s Diner – average American fare, but the attraction here is the wise-cracking wait staff, who break out in song, dance on tables, and dish out good-natured ribbing. The kids loved the entertainment value, and the Sponge Bob tattoos from the vending machine were a big added bonus!
Moon Palace – authentic Mandarin and Shanghai cuisine in Chinatown, with a dining room newly remodeled in April 2009. Approach was a bit dodgy, but the restaurant itself is a lovely space, kid friendly and not stuffy at all. I was drawn in by the lure of the famous Shanghai soup dumplings, or Xiao Long Bao. I have to admit I was hoping for a liquid explosion of the warm, succulent broth as you bite into the dumpling, but I was met with only a trickle. Nevertheless, the savory pork filling was extremely tasty, and my son’s favorite dish. My daughter enjoyed the shredded pork with Chinese pickle. We have no idea exactly what the “pickle” was (not your average cuke), and neither did the waiter, but it was tasty.
Museum of Science and Industry
If you only have time for one museum, this should be the one. The largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere has something for everyone including a WWII submarine, full sized United Airlines jet hanging from the ceiling, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle doll house display, farming technology, genetic and cloning exhibits, chick hatchery, train exhibit, coal mining demonstrations…and these are just some of the “standing” exhibits. There are also touring exhibits like the wildly popular Harry Potter Tour, which displays Warner Brothers’ props and costumes from the six feature films. We also forked over another $45 for tickets to the Omnimax Theater to see Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which was awesome in the widescreen Omni format.
You can print off 2 for 1 General Admission Museum discount coupons (among many others) at the incredibly helpful Explore Chicago official tourism site, which is THE place to go for everything on Chicago tourism. Follow them on Twitter at @explorechicago Great folks! Their site should be one of your first stops when planning your trip to Chicago.
I lucked out and was able to use promotional points for a free night stay at the Intercontinental in the heart of Michigan Avenue. Combined with two more nights at the AAA Automobile discount of $167, total for 3 nights stay was under $400, a bargain! Chicago hosts 45 million visitors each year, so you’ll find accommodations of every variety and price range. You do pay for location, but check your favorite hotel bookings sites for discounts. You can save a bundle if you’re willing to stay in the suburbs and commute in.
Chicago Transit Authority has loads of public transportation options, including the “L” elevated train, the Metra Rail commuter trains, and an extensive bus network. You can hail a taxi from just about anywhere in the central business district, and I found the fares to be quite reasonable. You certainly don’t need a car, and parking is very expensive, just like any major city. If you have any tips on affordable parking downtown, please pass them on. We paid $36 for overnight parking a few blocks off of Michigan Avenue, which was a savings over the $53/day for valet parking at the hotel. There…you’ve been warned!
We all had a great time, and look forward to a return trip!